Surrounded by Cows

Emerson, my two-year old daughter, and I recently climbed into our old Chevy pickup truck, buckled ourselves in, and drove off to attend a classic event that makes Denver, well, Denver. The National Western Stock Show, a two-week event complete with rodeos, calf-roping contests, steer auctions, sheep shearing races, and other events that celebrate all things bovine and beefy, comes once a year. Cowboy hats are the fashion, as is sticking your thumbs through your belt loops.Emmy had never seen one in real life, but she absolutely loves cows. Since she’s only two, I haven’t had to give the heartbreaking speech about how most end up as steaks and burgers–that loss of innocence will happen soon enough, and part of me hopes that I am not the one who breaks the news to her.At the Stock Show, Emmy and I walked through a complex of buildings and arenas, searching for the competition steer corrals. Country music wafted through the air, along with an odor that can be best described as rich and farm-like. When we finally found the corrals, Emmy said, simply, Wow. Cows. She pointed to each one as we walked by, these pampered, massive animals with rings through their noses and soft and fluffy coats, more silky than the hide of any well-loved lap dog. There were literally hundreds of them—jet black, brown and white, big and small, sleepy and agitated, Herefords, Angus, Longhorns, Tarentaise—all tied up in a massive warehouse, waiting for their big moment on stage, in front of the competition judges.

As we walked through the busy maze of cattle and corral, I carried Emmy so that she could get a good view of these beautiful animals. Row after row, black eyes gazed at us, pink tongues wagged, and handlers in Wrangler jeans scurried about, attending to every little detail. I’d never seen a cow’s ears and ankles get trimmed before, nor had I ever seen a blow drier used on a farm animal’s coiffure, but the hum in the warehouse was deafening. Cows getting primped and pretty. Cows luxuriating in the tender care of their owners. Emmy was beside herself with joy, wearing her big smile, the one that makes my heart sing. Wow. Cows.When Emmy was born, I’d just turned 35, and I liked my life. I liked my open-ended mornings, filled with writing time. I liked my two-times-a-week mountain biking excursions. I liked staying up late watching movies and MTV with my wife.Then, on a cold day in February of 2002, we had a baby. I held her, and she stared into my eyes intently, full of what seemed like pessimistic wonder, as if she were thinking, you’re the guy who’s going to take care of me for the next 18 years?

That little cherub scared the heck out of me. I believed I was up to the task, but I was afraid that I would lack the patience and attentiveness to be a good dad. I was afraid that, at my worst, I might be a cold, selfish, and unloving parent. I wondered: What if I get sick of changing diapers for the next two years? What if I ruin my back carrying her when she doesn’t feel like walking anymore? What if anger is my first response to her cries in the middle of the night?Talking to lots of other first-time dads, I’ve learned that these “what ifs” are fairly common. Children require faithful pampering. They require that you pay constant attention to them; they require that you build an infinite reservoir of patience. To be a good dad, you must be present. You must respond with a smile when that little beautiful child tugs on your sleeve for the hundredth time and asks “Do again?” when you’d prefer to sit on the couch and watch the game.

Over the past two years, I’ve found that I do have patience, although sometimes I have less of it than I should. And then, once in a while, I experience a convergence of grace and humor that helps me replenish that reservoir. I never could have predicted it, but I’ve discovered that being a dad is all about finding a sense of love in the world, in your own heart, and then sharing it with your kid, much like those handlers and their cows. Like those men and women primping their cows at the stable, every little detail is important. The always-filled sippy cup, the comfortable shoes, the warm-enough jacket, the correctly latched car seat, the hair combed and washed. Paying attention, being present for Emmy, is the most important thing I will ever do. And then showing her all that is wonderful and beautiful in the world. For better or worse, that is my life, the only truly essential job I have.

After walking through every row in the entire stable, Emmy and I went outside for a funnel cake and cup of lemonade. The day had turned out warm and sunny, and we basked in winter’s grace. I gave Emmy a big chunk of funnel cake, and soon her nose and cheeks were covered in white sugar-dust. She climbed from her chair and onto the table, and immediately I reached over, grabbed her ankle, and began to pull her back. But there was no one else at the table, and it was the stock show, and the day was beautiful, so I let go. “Normally, you can’t climb on the table, right Emerson?” I asked.“Yes, daddy,” she said, smiling coyly. If there is one moment that I will always cherish, that was it. Sometimes parenting is just about being there. At the stock show of all places. With a bunch of cowboys and their cows.

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2 thoughts on “Surrounded by Cows

  1. My bestest childhood buddy, a couple years ahead of me in the parenting cycle, is teaching me something. Now, tommorow, when Nathaniel rolls around on the bed like an otter playing in the surf and I hear the first “dit” sound that says no amount of coddling is going to get me back to sleep, and I look at the clock and see that it is 5AM and know that it is me who gets up with him because I used to be a morning person and is about the best thing I can give my wife is a few hours of sleep, I will think about this: that is why I am here. That and all of those moments you get that could never be scripted and are amazing. Wow, cows.

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